Rebekka Andersen, University of California, Davis

Why are so many content management system (CMS) implementations plagued with problems? Why, despite the growing number of available best practices resources and training opportunities, are so many information developers struggling to plan for and carry out CMS implementations? Surely, insufficient training, resources, and readiness come to mind; however, my research suggests that culture and communication play a much bigger role than we tend to think.

This spring, I attended numerous sessions at the Content Management Strategies/DITA North America Conference that emphasized the struggles information development teams are facing as they attempt to move from a book paradigm to an object-oriented authoring paradigm, or single-source content management (SSCM). Building on this theme, I gave a talk titled, “Planning for the Content Management Technology Diffusion Process,” in which I attempted to shed light on how culture mediates perceptions and understandings and how, without appropriate communication channels in place, people come to understand technologies, processes, goals, expectations, and terms differently. Different understandings of meaning result in communication breakdowns, which can impede progress toward achieving desired outcomes.

In my talk, I discussed the role of culture and communication in the CMS adoption process of an information development group at a Fortune 100 manufacturing company. In 2007, as part of an eight-month case study, I examined the process by which the group evaluated and attempted to adopt a CMS, as well as the process by which the CMS vendor attempted to diffuse its CMS into the information development group. The group originally intended to evaluate the CMS over a three-month trial period and, if the system was a good match, adopt the CMS to support their move to SSCM. After six months of communication breakdowns, technical problems, and little progress toward achieving their goals for the trial, however, the information development group abruptly ended the trial and decided not to adopt the CMS.

In this article, I reveal how unanticipated cultural factors (such as organizational practices, relationships, values, and rules) and communication factors (meaning-making activities, such as correspondence, meetings, and training) prevented the information development group and the vendor from achieving their adoption and diffusion goals.

Culture Mediates Perceptions and Understanding

Theories of activity and social construction assert that learning is local and situational (cf. Brown and Duguid; Driskell; Jaworski; Kaptelinin and Nardi; Lave and Wenger; Russell; Virkkunen and Kuutti). One learns through participation in a culture of shared artifacts, values, rules, and language. Being immersed in this culture, one is continually learning how to be a member of that culture. When learning a new concept, practice, or technology, one gathers new information and attempts to make sense of what it means in terms of the culture in which the new knowledge will be put into practice. In essence, the learner’s evaluation and interpretation of new information is mediated by the shared artifacts, values, rules, and language of the culture in which the learner is an active participant.


The information development group’s evaluation and interpretation of how well the vendor and the CMS could meet their needs for SSCM was mediated by the structure, practices, habits, and ways of thinking of the culture of information development—and its long history and relationship with other departments, subject matter expert (SME) reviewers, and product managers. For example, SME reviewers tended to see reviewing documents as secondary to their primary work tasks and tended not to complete their reviews by the deadlines set by the writers. Furthermore, reviewers had historically been resistant to adopting new review tools and processes, as change meant a time-consuming learning curve and potentially more work.

The information development group’s ultimate perceptions of the CMS were influenced by their concern about the SME reviewers’ reactions to the new system; because the information development group had not worked to gain buy-in for SSCM before they evaluated the CMS, the group’s long history and vulnerable relationship with reviewers influenced the extent to which the group felt that the CMS was a good fit for the company.

Understanding how different elements of a culture, such as values, rules, history, and structure, might influence perceptions of a new technology can help information developers anticipate potential barriers to adoption. Information developers might, for example, identify a history of poor collaboration as a potential barrier; to overcome this barrier, then, those leading the SSCM charge might take steps to cultivate a culture of collaboration before attempting to adopt a CMS.

One-Way Communication Hinders Knowledge Acquisition and Learning

The information development group’s ultimate perceptions of the CMS and the vendor were largely the result of what proved to be an information transfer model of communication.

An information transfer model of communication focuses on the one-way transmission of information from source to receiver and is based on an assumption that the meaning transmitted is the meaning received. An information transfer model of communication assumes that if new information is well written and transmitted with reasonable accuracy from source to receiver, the receiver will be able to successfully apply that information in her problem-solving activities. This model, however, has faced much scrutiny from communication and social science experts (cf. Brown and Duguid; Dobrin; Doheny-Farina; Miller; Rogers; Williams and Gibson), as it fails to account for how individuals come to understand what the transmitted information might mean in terms of the culture in which it is to be used.


For the trial, the CMS vendor and information development group put a number of communication channels in place—such as a support portal, email, and weekly conference calls—to facilitate the exchange of messages between the vendor and the group. Although these channels had much potential to facilitate communication as a two-way process of convergence, they were used more for message transfer than for sharing knowledge and coming to a shared understanding of meaning. The channels in place, with the exception of the weekly conference call, lacked interpersonal, synchronous communication affordances. They did not allow for participants to discuss non-technical questions with the implementation team, whom they considered to be experts in use of the system. Further, the channels were not set up to elicit feedback on the CMS and trial itself; in a way, the absence of such a feedback loop silenced many of the group members’ concerns that the vendor might have otherwise negotiated during the trial.

The information that the vendor transmitted to the information development group through training, the support portal, email exchanges, and even conference calls proved, for the most part, not useful, as the group members were often unable to make sense of the information in terms of their day-to-day work.

The bottom line is that the communication channels in place provided little opportunity for the work group to turn its “know that” about the CMS into “know-how” knowledge (cf. Brown and Duguid; Wenger, McDermott, and Synder). The vendor tended to transmit information to the information development group through web sessions, the support portal, and email exchanges expecting that the work group could then use it for problem-solving. But the group had yet to develop the kind of “how-to” knowledge necessary to make sense of what the information meant in terms of the immediate problems that they were experiencing.


Information developers should not underestimate the role of culture and communication in the CMS adoption process. Moving to SSCM requires not only sufficient planning, training, and resources, but also an understanding of culture and how the different elements of a culture might mediate perceptions and understanding. Information developers should implement appropriate communication channels to facilitate two-way communications between and among all stakeholders involved in the SSCM initiative. Unlike one-way communications, two-way communications provide opportunities for knowledge sharing and coming to shared understandings of meaning.

Planning for the role of culture and communication in the CMS adoption process might, at a minimum, include the following tasks:

  • Assess how different elements of your organizational culture, such as existing relationships, rules, and artifacts, will influence perceptions and use of the CMS as well as the new authoring, workflow, reviewing, publishing processes that it supports.
  • Develop strategies as part of your change management plan to address the role of mediation in the adoption process.
  • Ensure that appropriate communication channels are in place to facilitate knowledge sharing and understanding sharing between and among all stakeholders.
  • Work with your selected vendor to develop shared artifacts, such as test plans and learning outcomes, to help reduce cultural and communication barriers to successful adoption.

Rebekka Andersen is an assistant professor in the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis, where she teaches writing in the disciplines and professions courses. Her research focuses on the diffusion of content management technologies in information-development teams. Most recently, she is studying how managers, technology developers, and information developers plan for and attempt to carry out the activity of technology transfer. Rebekka has worked as a technical writer and editor and process documentation specialist. She has also presented her research at conferences hosted by the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, the Professional Communication Society, the Association for Business Communication, and the Society for Technical Communication.